(Click on any image to enlarge)
The church of the Holy Sepulcher is one of the most unique and impressive sites in Israel, with an appeal transcends any religious definitions. Most Christian denominations mark this place as the site of Jesus' crucifixion, burial and resurrection, but even non-Christians find themselves marveling at the Escher-esque architecture and colorful stories from its long history.
Upon entering the church, one immediately encounters the structure that covers Calvary Hill, the modest limestone mound on top of which Jesus was crucified. Atop the winding flight of stairs lie three (out of the fourteen) Stations of the Cross - stops along the path of that fateful day. This essay will focus on the intricate mosaics covering the ceiling of the 11th station, a small Catholic chapel dedicated to Jesus' nailing to the cross.
The mosaics were the creation of Antonio Barluzzi (1884–1960), an Italian Franciscan monk and architect, known as "the Architect of the Holy Land". Throughout the 1930's he designed many of the Catholic churches in the most important holy locations, always striving to connect with ancient relics found on site and stay true to their style. Here he based all of his work on this exceptional medallion, which has survived from the Crusader period (it is very rare to find such ancient ceilings still in tact).
The arch leading into the chapel is decorated with two verses in Latin, taken not from the New Testament but from the Old, as if saying: if you want to understand what happened here, you must start at the very beginning. The first verse, where the words Ovis (lamb) and Occisionem (slaughter) can be seen, is taken from Isaiah 53:7 : "He was led as a lamb to the slaughter". The second, including the words Dolores Nostros (our suffering) is Isaiah 53:4 : "Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted."
These two verses stress that the drama here arises not from victimization by some enemy but from voluntary self sacrifice. This is in accordance with the Nostra Aetate, the Vatican's declaration from 1965 on the relation of the Catholic Church with non-Christian religions, stating among other things that the Jews should not be condemned for their role in bringing about the death of Jesus.
The arch leads to the first vaulted ceiling, depicting the four Old Testament prophets who have hinted at the eventual coming of Jesus, with quotes from their books that relate strongly to the topics of this chapel, the nailing in particular and the theme of sacrifice in general.
This is Isaiah, closest to the arch that bears his words, with a quote mentioning the word Oblatus (an offering). This is a different section from the same verse as the arch (53:7) : "He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth."
Daniel's apocalyptic book was very popular during the 2nd Temple period. The quote, the most prominent word of which is Christus (Christ), is taken from his Seventy Weeks prophecy, describing the coming of the Messiah and the rebuilding of Jerusalem (9:26) : "And after the sixty-two weeks Messiah shall be cut off". In his consecration speech in 335AD, the great Eusebius quoted this prophecy, stating that this very church was the "new Jerusalem" it was foreseeing.
The four prophets are surrounded with circles, portraying relevant stories from the Old Testament, all springing from the roots of a rich, fruit laden vine (representing wine, a recurring symbol for Christ).
The large mosaic on the wall (below to the left) depicts the Binding of Isaac. Like Jesus, this boy is lying quietly, allowing his own sacrifice. This story has always symbolized the boundless love between the Lord and mankind, but here the Lord wished to spare Abraham the pain of losing his beloved son for this love, and provided a ram to take his place - thus distinguishing Judaism from the pagan world at the time, in which child sacrifice was commonplace.
This connects us to the mosaic in the far end of the chapel (below to the right), showing Jesus, looking very similar to Isaac, being bound (with nails this time) to the cross. Note the small thorn bush in the back - but this time there is no ram caught in it. God does not spare himself the pain of sacrificing his own beloved son for his love of mankind.
Also in this mosaic we see Mary, mother of Jesus, standing in black above him. The woman crying over him is Mary Magdalene, who can always be identified by her unruly red hair, bursting out of her head cover, hinting at her strong personality and emotions.
The adjoining wall is dominated by Mary Magdalene in her grief. Again her hair/emotions cannot be held back, with Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary of Cleopas silent and reserved by her side. The man in red is John, Jesus' favorite disciple, whose beardless face show he must be very young here. According to tradition, the very same man grew up to write (among other things) the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelations, near the end of the 1st century. In the background we see the walled city of Jerusalem, reminding us that this place, now in the heart of the busy city, used to be an empty, wild wasteland.
As we advance to the next vaulted ceiling, we also advance in time into the New Testament. In the center there is a decorated circle. Inside are a Christogram, a combination of letters that forms an abbreviation for the name of Jesus Christ (in this case the letters chi (Χ) and rho (Ρ), the first two letters of "Christ" in Greek), and the letters alpha (A) and omega (ω), first and last letters of the Greek alphabet (mentioned in Revelations 22:13 : "I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last." ).
This fruit laden vine is as rich and plentiful as the one depicted on the previous ceiling, but among the baskets of abundance hide other symbols: the cup of agony (below to the left) and a reed with a vinegar-soaked sponge next to a spear (below to the right), reminding us of the price that was paid.
In the middle we see that the cross has became the tool by which Christ can redeem the world - an idea dubbed salus mundi. It is surrounded by 12 white doves, representing the apostles of course, but also the dozen tribes, signifying the universal nature of this idea.
Thus ends the story of this little chapel, which has led us from the first sin and away from heaven's Tree of Life, through prophecies, failures and hopes of redemption, all the way to the cross on Calvary hill - literally a Tree of Death - by which all humanity can to be saved.